Monday, April 28, 2008

Science and Faith

By Maria Boccia, PhD
Professor of Pastoral Counseling and Psychology and
Director of Graduate Programs in Counseling at the Charlotte campus

As an evangelical Christian who also worked for almost 3 decades as a full time research scientist, before taking my current position here at GCTS-Charlotte, I always am very interested in media presentations on reconciling science and faith. In every case (this might be an exaggeration, but I cannot recall any exceptions), the conversation has entailed a relatively liberal, certainly not evangelical, take on Christianity, combined with a blind, dogmatic acceptance of science. A local public radio station's recent show broadcasting a conversation with a Catholic priest as a part of discussions around the pope's visit was no exception. This priest who was also an astronomer was presented as a paragon of reconciliation between faith and science.

I would like to mention some examples of, and my reactions to, the kinds of questions that typically trip people up in these discussions:

These conversations often start with a criticism and rejection of "literal" interpretations of the Bible. Often, examples are given of phenomenological language in the Bible which is then ridiculed as reflecting primitive or archaic cosmologies or understandings of natural phenomenon. This, then, is justification for rejecting historically orthodox understandings of salvation history, and God's work in creation. There is, of course, a more nuanced way to understand the Bible, which would require a more careful distinction between literal versus literalistic interpretations. Furthermore and more to the point, the same critics do not hesitate to talk about the sun rising or setting, or the stars twinkling in the night sky, without bothering with astronomical accuracy. If this were a valid criticism of historic orthodox understandings of the Bible, these critics ought not to be using phenomenological language themselves when they talk about the Earth's rotation on its axis and the effect of Earth’s atmosphere on our perception of light from the distant stars.

These conversations also typically entail judging the believability of Scripture based on what we "know" from science. At a very basic level, and from multiple perspectives, this seems doomed from the outset. First, if one is judging the believability of Scripture based on science, then one is not really reconciling science and faith. One is deifying science, and then allowing faith only to touch where it agrees with science or where science is silent. Second, the exclusion of the possibility of the supernatural from the presuppositions of science would seem to me to completely disallow science commenting on anything related to origins, miracles, or anything having to do with God's work in the world. By definition, if science presuppositionally excludes the supernatural, it cannot judge or evaluate the supernatural. Third, when considering the relationship between faith and science, it is important to consider the truth/facts of the Bible and the truth/facts of science versus our human interpretations of these. I believe a great deal of the debate and apparent contradiction and conflict derives from disagreements in interpretations of science and the Bible rather than the truth/facts of these disciplines. Finally, when the believability of Scripture is based on what we "know" from science, then what we take from Scripture is limited to whatever I idiosyncratically find a way to comfortably bring under the rubric of science.

For example, the priest on the local radio program talked about stories and myths in the Bible. It was clear that he felt free to judge Scripture and decide which stories are grounded in history and which are not (he used the word "myth" for both types of stories). The example he chose to discuss was the star of Bethlehem (he's an astronomer after all!). He seemed to believe that this was a natural phenomenon that happened to appear at that particular moment (This is the kind of argument that is often mounted with respect to the plagues of Egypt as well). I have always found this a very unconvincing argument against the miraculous: if it was not a miracle of the existence of the star, then it was a miracle of the timing of its appearance. Furthermore, however, this seems to have serious implications for one's faith: where does one draw the line? If science doesn't allow for a miraculous star to appear, it certainly does not allow for the virgin birth, which is an element of evangelical faith, or for the divinity of Jesus, which is also a critical doctrine. Is the priest going to reject these things as mythological also?

So, I am still waiting for the definitive conversation on the integration of faith and science that is true to evangelical Christianity and maintains the integrity of both faith and science. I do not believe that this is impossible, but I do believe it is impossible if one holds dogmatically to a narrowly naturalistic view of science, and holds science up as the judge of faith.

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